William Maxwell Essay - Critical Essays


William Maxwell’s fiction has a strong autobiographical basis. Especially noted for accurate and vivid depiction of small midwestern towns in the first half of the twentieth century, Maxwell frequently drew from his early childhood in Lincoln, Illinois. Consequently, his novels deal with recurring themes and events that reflect his own experiences. The most common of these is the absence of one parent, stemming either from the death of Maxwell’s mother or from estrangement from a father who never understood him, a condition that contributed to the loneliness of a child who had a reserved and intellectual temperament. Maxwell’s sharp and insightful character delineations have consistently been praised by critics.

Bright Center of Heaven

Maxwell’s first novel, Bright Center of Heaven, is set on a farm called Meadowland near Thisbe, Wisconsin. The farm is run by Mrs. Susan West, a generous but absentminded and disorganized widow who, finding her husband’s estate insufficient to support her family, takes in a number of boarders. Paul McKenzie is a former schoolteacher who is searching for meaningful work. His lover is actor Nigel Foley, who fears that she may be pregnant. Also staying at the house are a brokenhearted pianist, Josefa Marchand, and a depressed painter, Cynthia Damon. Mrs. West’s two teenage sons, Thorn and Whitey, are of opposite temperaments. Thorn loves the farm and is very much like his father; he is also in love for the first time, with Nigel. Whitey spends most of his time running errands for his mother. Also living at Meadowland is Mrs. West’s sister, Miss Amelia Bascom, who has eaten nothing but cottage cheese and weak tea for three years and is easily upset and offended. Completing the family is nephew Bascom, who disturbs the tenants and talks incessantly. Most of the other characters suspect that Bascom is mentally unsound. The house is maintained by two servants: Johanna, the German cook, whose mother is dying overseas, and Gust, the old caretaker, who has worked for Mrs. West’s family for many years and whose loyalty prevents him from retiring as soon as he would like.

It is an eccentric household, and Maxwell moves among the points of view of all the characters before finally viewing the action through the eyes of Jefferson Carter, a Negro lecturer whom Mrs. West has invited to stay at the house—an act that almost guarantees a scandal. The novel runs through the course of one day, from breakfast to bedtime, and the simple, realistic dialogue, the ordinary daily tasks, and the exceptional circumstance of Carter’s visit combine to permit great insight into the characters. Although the novel deals with subjects normally treated only in serious novels—subjects such as unwanted pregnancy, suicide, and racism—the novel is essentially a comic one and displays Maxwell’s great potential as a novelist.

They Came Like Swallows

In They Came Like Swallows, Maxwell again presents his story through various points of view. Beginning in November, 1918, and covering a period of about two months, the novel examines the effect that the death of Elizabeth Morison has on her husband and her two young sons. The novel is divided into three sections, each devoted to the point of view of one of these three characters. Eight-year-old Peter Morison, known as Bunny and clearly Maxwell’s fictional alter ego, is exceptionally close to his mother and suffers his father’s cold detachment, both common elements in Maxwell’s novels. Bunny also experiences some sibling rivalry with his thirteen-year-old brother, Robert, who, despite having lost a leg in an accident, continues to participate actively in sports. In the beginning of the novel Bunny’s mother is pregnant and reads the first newspaper reports on the mysterious Spanish influenza. World War I comes to an end and all seems well, but Bunny contracts the disease. When two sparrows accidentally become trapped in Bunny’s room, his mother impetuously enters, although she has been banished from the room because of her pregnancy.

Because of the complications she experienced with her first two pregnancies, Elizabeth goes to Decatur with her husband, James, to have the baby. Original plans to stay with their favorite aunt, Irene, fall through, so the boys stay with their Aunt Clara; there Robert feels isolated and finally comes down with the flu as well. During their illness, the boys learn that both parents have also contracted the disease, and, shortly after the birth of a frail son, Robert and Bunny’s mother dies. Each of her remaining family members has grief and feelings of guilt to confront. James fears that his rushing to get on a crowded train may have unnecessarily exposed his wife to the illness; Robert blames himself for allowing his mother into Bunny’s room. James is completely helpless and considers sending the children permanently to Aunt Clara’s. Through their shared grief, their reliance on one another, and the guidance of Elizabeth’s sister Irene, who commits herself to helping James care for the three children, however, the Morison family will be able to survive their loss. The novel has been commended for its insights into children’s perceptions and its avoidance of excessive sentimentality.

The Folded Leaf

A child’s loss of...

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